The Open House Project from The Sunlight Foundation

Landscape of constituent communication

October 4th, 2007 by Joshua Tauberer · 3 Comments

Oxa Koba asks in a comment to my last post what other forms of many-to-one communications types there are that would make sense for Congress, as additional forms of communication besides the individually sent letter. I don’t know what would make sense for Congress, but here are some things I had in mind.

The petition, which I mentioned last post but am including here for completeness’s sake — A letter with a number of signatories. Questions: How can Congress authenticate the signatories? Is a petition too easy to sign to be meaningful to representatives?

The collaboratively written letter. This is something I have a new interest in following the discussion of the “C-Wiki” on the OHP list. This differs from the petition in that the signers actively participated in crafting the letter, meaning that the effort of the signatories is roughly the same as an individually written letter. The question is: How does one do a collaboratively written letter on a large scale? Something like a wiki would be involved, but one could imagine tweaking the wiki process to make a better system for writing consensus-driven letters. On a small scale, this is really not much different from the individual letter (if sent multiple times), so it’s a technological question for how to do it effectively/usefully.

A petition to answer a question. This is something like a Digg for “ask your rep”, or the Slashdot-style interview, and I may have first seen this for politics on the Gateway-to-Gov wiki. Vote up questions you want your rep to address, the top questions get sent, and the rep sends back a single reply to all those who participated in voting. I’m separating this from the usual petition in that the emphasis here is on the response.

The town forum. Once relegated to physical spaces, this can now be done in a few ways on the Internet. A text-based chat room (this must have been done before, but I don’t know of any examples), a virtual video-based chat room of some sort, or streaming a video recording of an actual (in person) town hall over the web. (I met someone on Monday who had some experience with that that I hope to talk to more about once I get the chance.) In a town forum, questions may have been authored by individuals (solitarily), but the method of disseminating the response is much more lively/interesting than a letter or press release.

The delegated voice. (Ok, I’m making up that name.) This is where members of the community elect someone to voice their thoughts and communicate one-on-one with someone higher up. Think of this as Your District’s delegate-to-your-representative on Net Neutrality issues. Backed by a large constituency, the delegate makes meetings with the congressperson, relays views, reports back, and perhaps establishes a long-lasting relation both with the community and the member of congress.

[Update 10/6/07: Commenter Chris on my previous post notes blog comments and forums as two other communications methods. Definitely.]

That’s all I can think of for now. Leave comments if you have other ideas.

The interesting thing to me is that there are technological issues in each of these methods that can be resolved with some elbow grease that might make them practical (whereas without technology, most are perhaps difficult or impossible to do effectively). (Thanks Oxa for the comment!)

Tags: OpenHouse · communication

3 responses so far ↓

  • Evan Paul // Oct 4, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    Regarding your mention of internet technologies to support town forums, here are several that are currently used:

    AmericaSpeaks’ 21st Century Town Meetings – Ok, this is a blatant self-promotion of a methodology that my organization uses all the time. This town meeting format incorporates groupware technology and individual keypads to enable citizens to grapple with policy issues, give their thoughts / comments / questions, and vote on their common priorities / concerns. A video demo of the methodology is available here –

    There are several online tools that’ve been used to enable large groups of citizens to engage in policy deliberation with decision-makers. A write up on them is available in this IBM Center for the Business of Government report at

    We’ve used streaming video to enable much larger-scale participation in town meetings on a variety of projects including New Orleans disaster recovery and the Architecture2030 Teach-In (

    Feel free to email me if you’d like to talk more about this.


  • Oxa Koba // Oct 4, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Wow! I wasn’t expecting to see my name up in lights.

    Thanks for listing out your thoughts in more detail. I would imagine congressional staffers might have an easier time considering these suggestions than the general “many-to-one” proposition you offered in the other post.

    I think the most obvious problem is the issue you pointed out regarding authentication. I had hoped that 2007 would have been the year that authentication was finally “solved” by an open standard online, but things are moving slowly.

    That said, I can imagine whatever comes of OAuth, OpenID, the open social graph, etc. might lead to a mechanism for certifying who has signed a petition (for example).

    It is a unique issue and again I appreciate the details you have offered up for consideration and expansion.

    PS — Did anyone from The Open House Project participate in the “We Are All Actors” workshop (WAAA 2007). I became aware of via Tantek Çelik’s blog who was invited as a technical expert. They were discussing the Transparent Federal Budget project ( ) and I suspect some of the technical solutions that address constituent involvement (e.g. polling) and transparent can likely be abstracted to the objectives of TOHP and vice versa.

  • Joshua Tauberer // Oct 8, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Evan- That’s really neat. Thanks for posting the links.

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